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Paul Valry and the Search

for Poetic Rhythm


DAVID EVANS
Abstract:
Throughout his theoretical writings, Valry insists on two fundamental
principles: poetic rhythm is undefinable and yet it is central to poetry. Although
his verse practice evolves from irregularity to regularity, Valry insists that
predictable metrical forms are no guarantee of poeticity, and rejects the
Romantic model of rhythmic mimesis based on the cosmos, nature or the
human body. It is not by confirming the meaningfulness of regular patterns,
therefore, that poetic rhythm signifies; rather, the complex overlapping of
multiple, elusive and unanalysable rhythms provides a source of questions to
which the answer is constantly deferred; and that, for Valry, is the definition
of poetry.
Keywords: Valry, Cahiers, rhythm, rhyme, versification, metre, beauty,
constellations, deferral

The work of Paul Valry (18711945) emerges from and contributes


to a radical reconceptualisation of poetic rhythm, beginning with
his acquaintance with Mallarm, and a passion for his poetry, in the
1890s. Although Valrys poetic production was quite limited, his
theoretical writings filled countless notebooks (cahiers) with detailed
reflections on the processes of composition and reading; while his verse
amounts to the short monologue La Jeune Parque (The Young Fate), a
brief Album de vers anciens (Album of Old Verses) and the twenty-one
poems of Charmes (Charms), he wrote the Cahiers without interruption
from the late 1890s to his death. Valry offers some of the most
rigorous, lucid, complex and above all, healthily sceptical thinking
on the meaning of post-crisis rhythm. His analysis is not limited to
literature he explores rhythm as a characteristic of memory, motor
functions, perception, the natural world, as well as in the composition
and reception of the arts but given the vast scope, and sheer amount,
of Valerys writings on the subject, I will restrict myself here to his
analyses of rhythm as a central feature of poetry. Valrys thinking is
invaluable because, first and foremost, he insists throughout his life on
Paragraph 33:2 (2010) 158175
DOI: 10.3366/E0264833410000829

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the impossibility of defining rhythm satisfactorily:


Rhythm. Very hard to analyse, this notion. (Cahiers, 191415, V, 499)1
This word rhythm is not clear to me. (Cahiers, 1915, V, 541)
I have read or composed twenty definitions of Rhythm, none of
which I adopt. (, I, 1289)
Rhythm no objective definition. To define it would be to produce
it. (Cahiers, 1938, XXI, 14)

While acknowledging rhythms undefinability, though, Valry never


ceases investigating it as a scholar and poet, constantly questioning
the value of metrical verse. The eighteen-year old Valry writes to
Charles Bos in 1889, I believe in the all-powerfulness of rhythm
(, I, 1574) and line five of Orphe (1891 version) reads: Le dieu
chante, et selon le rythme tout puissant (the god sings, and by the
all-powerful rhythm); and while this youthful enthusiasm for rhythm
never abates, the relationship between rhythm, poetry and verse is
never taken for granted.
The Album de vers anciens (1920) contains poems mostly written
between 1890 and 1893 in traditional metrical form: mainly
alexandrines, the centuries-old twelve-syllable line with an obligatory
pause, or caesura, halfway through coinciding with a break in the sense:
Le chant clair des rameurs / enchane le tumulte (The clear song
of the rowers enslaves the tumult) (Hlne, l. 11). Yet within that
regular form, in keeping with a precedent set, notably, by Baudelaire,
Rimbaud, Verlaine, Banville, Laforgue and Mallarm, Valry includes
an extremely high proportion of ametrical lines, where the caesura falls
mid-word or after an unaccentuable schwa.2 Moreover, many of these
metrically irregular lines deal with music and nature, suggesting that
poetic rhythm does not lie in an outdated Romantic analogy between
a musical universe and metrical verse:
O le jardin mlo / dieux se dodeline (La Fileuse, l.3)
(Where the melodious garden nods its head)
Les hauts murs dor harmo / nieux dun sanctuaire (Orphe, l.9)
(The high walls, of harmonious gold, of a sanctuary)
Une goutte tombe / de la flte sur leau (pisode, l.18)
(A drop falls from the flute onto the water)
Entendre londe se / rompre aux degrs sonores (Hlne, l.2)
(Hearing the wave break in sonorous degrees)

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In this last example, the rhythms of metrical verse and the waves
are in conflict, breaking the anticipated balance of the line rather
than mapping onto each other as in Victor Hugo, for example.
Similar rhythmic disturbances occur at the line end, with enjambement
displacing the accent from the rhyme word to the next line: que
lOcan constelle / Dcume (which the Ocean constellates / With
spray, t, ll.2930). Whereas the rhythms of the sea are synonymous
with verse in Romantic poetry, here the sea-spray, scattered in the air,
disturbs rather than confirms metrical structures. Poetic rhythm, for
Valry, may be all-powerful, but already in his early verse, it is clearly
not synonymous with predictable, fixed metre and rhyme.
While the early twentieth century saw French free verse blossom,
Valrys verse seemed to return to regularity. La Jeune Parque (1917),
on which Valry worked while editing his early verse, is remarkable
for alexandrines where syntax and metre coincide, and from over 500
lines, almost all observe a strong caesura and a firm 66 rhythm. As
Valry explained in 1941, I insisted (. . . ) on observing the rules of
classical prosody, on being even more rigorous, perhaps (, I, 1614).
Similarly, Charmes (1922), which Valry describes as a collection of
prosodic experiments,3 displays a wide variety of canonical stanzaic
and metrical forms from pentasyllable to dodecasyllable, all with their
roots in the French tradition stretching back to the late medieval period
and the Renaissance, and with several influenced by Hugo. As well
as their hearty embrace of metrical structures, the last two volumes
are noteworthy for the frequency of rimes lonines, extremely rich
rhymes whose rhyming phonemes stretch over two or more syllables,
strengthening the parallelism between isometric lines, an effect further
emphasised by the short metres:
Fin suprme, tincellement (. . . )
Proclame universellement (Ode secrte, ll.214)

It would be tempting to interpret this enthusiasm for reinforcing


metrical structures as a return to a simplistic belief in rhythmic
regularity and traditional verse form. Valry insists, however, that the
poetic value of regularity is unstable, arguing in his cahiers that The
principle is the music of verse. Rhyme richness can contribute to
it. It can also detract from it (Cahiers, 1914, V, 273). Furthermore,
in his writings on poetry he constantly classifies rhythm separately
from metre and number when discussing formal techniques, such as
rhythmics, metrics and prosody (Questions de posie, , I, 1293).

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Indeed, Valry clearly states that Feeling the rhythm or the nonrhythm is entirely independent from the counting (dnombrement)
(Cahiers, 1915, V,543).
Intriguingly, given the evolution of his verse practice towards
predictable regularity, Valry repeatedly equates the mechanisms of
metrical verse with the death of poetry. Bad verse, he writes, gives
the impression of being an automatic mechanism (Cahiers, 1910, IV:
485), and of Hugos verse he writes disparagingly, nothing is more
strictly mechanical (Cahiers, 1915, V, 667). When Boileau codified
verse, this was seized upon by inferior minds, who could prove by
counting on their fingers that the verse was good (Cahiers, 1917, VI,
748). Thus, he argues:
The classical rules of French verse almost impossible to justify as a whole, easy
to remember like a decree, difficult to observe without writing nonsense, since
most of ones art is spent on satisfying them; their clarity allowing someone, with
no ear and with no poetry, to judge poets; conventional rules; societal; very likely
to make for ridiculous verse, to submit the man who sings to the man who can
count to twelve. (Cahiers, 1916, VI, 202)

Similarly, despite his own extravagantly rich rhymes in Charmes, Valry


disagrees with the idea of making rich rhyme a mechanical criterion.
An artist whoever respected it. Not an artist whoever sacrificed it
(Cahiers, 1914, V, 273). The mistake of the Parnassian school, for
Valry, lay in their defining too rigidly the formal elements of beauty:
They defined the beautiful line of verse too precisely. As a result, any poet could
measure himself accurately by the overall amount of his verse compared to the
number of beautiful lines. (. . . ) Whenever beauty becomes determined like that,
it becomes facile. (Cahiers, 1915, V, 882)

For Valry, it is this excessive formal prescriptivism which precipitated


the crisis in French verse, whereas what is needed now, on the contrary,
is la beaut informule (unformulated beauty) which depends on ce
qui reste dinforme (what remains of the formless). In his important
Discours sur lesthtique (1937), Valry observes that Beauty will
always elude scientific analysis, since no formula can account for, or
prescribe, a sufficiently wide variety: The very idea of a Science of
Beauty was destined to be undermined by the diversity of beauties
produced or recognised in the world over time (, I, 1302).
While Valry does not in practice discard regular metrical
conventions, then, these conventions do not provide the rhythmic
proof of poetry, nor does their presence in a work guarantee its

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poeticity. Rather, just as Virginia Woolf, in the epigraph to Emma


Suttons essay in this volume, presents rhythm as a wave, not
monotonously regular, but rather, breaking and tumbling in the mind,
Valry argues that poetry be redefined as an undulatory mechanism!
(Cahiers, 1927, XII, 275). The notion of a mechanical device remains,
but in practice, poetic rhythm requires the performance of a regularity
which the skill of the poet must somehow make us forget: How
ridiculous the scansion of metrical verse Reducing music to beating
time, whereas music consists of making you forget the beat while
nonetheless sticking to it rigorously (Cahiers, 1940, XXIII, 197). The
active, multiple nature of this new rhythmical model is highlighted
by Valrys explanation of how rhythm functions in a succession of
rhymed alexandrine couplets such as those of La Jeune Parque, which
adheres to the conventional alternation of masculine (ending in a
consonant) and feminine (ending in an e) rhymes:
There is a sort of rhythm particular to the alexandrine which lies in
the combination of the phrase and the rhyme you have in the series
MMFFMMFFMMFF the combinations MM, or FF, or MF, or FM, ie. a perfect
couplet MM, FF, or a mixed couplet FM, MF.
This rhythm is in addition to all the other kinds of rhythms. (Cahiers, 1918, VII,
636)

Conventional verse, then, provides a framework in which multiple


rhythms are superimposed and performed simultaneously, set to work
with and against each other as an irresolvable process, and it is
this complexity which defines the experience of poetic rhythm for
Valry; free verse lacks the basic metrical blueprint against which other
patterns can be experienced in counterpoint.4
The fallacy of rhythmic mimesis

One of the most crucial features of Valrys thinking on rhythm, in


terms of his importance to the post-Mallarmean poetic landscape, is
his refusal to see any meaning in the natural world beyond that which
the human mind attributes to it, thereby severing any Romantic links
between verse form and the cosmos.5 For Hugo, the stars explicitly
proclaim Gods presence in the universe:
Pliades qui percez nos voiles,
Quest-ce que disent vos toiles?
Dieu! dit la constellation. (Les Mages, ll. 1820)6

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(Pleiades, which pierce our veils,


What do your stars express?
God! replies the constellation.)

By contrast, in a famous passage from Valrys writings on Mallarm,


he recalls walking with the author of the recently completed
experimental poem Un Coup de ds (A Throw of the Dice), and
contemplating the stars, which seem to be the very text of the silent
universe; a text full of clarity and enigmas; as tragic, as indifferent
as you like; which speaks and does not speak; a tissue of multiple
meanings; which assembles order and disorder; which proclaims a God
as powerfully as it denies Him (Un Coup de ds, 1920, , I, 626). The
constellations are neither a random, meaningless jumble, nor proof of
a divine presence; it is their very inscrutability which is so captivating,
tempting us to see meaningful structures where there may be none at
all. Yet since the absence of meaning, in the great French tradition
of Pascal and Baudelaire, is a terrifying prospect, it is only human to
impose order on the cosmos, as Valry confirms in Ode secrte, from
Charmes:
O quel Taureau, quel Chien, quelle Ourse,
Quels objets de victoire norme,
Quand elle entre aux temps sans ressource
Lme impose lespace informe! (ll.1720)
(Oh what a Bull, what a Dog, what a Bear,
What objects of great victory,
When it enters times of no resource,
The soul imposes on formless space!)

Un Coup de ds itself appeared to Valry comme si une constellation


et paru qui et enfin signifi quelque chose (, I, 624) (as if a
constellation had appeared which at last meant something), the pair of
imperfect subjunctives maintaining the necessary ambiguity whereby
meaning, in the world as in the text, is no longer a stable truth,
but rather a tantalizing yet never fully realised possibility. If poetic
rhythm, therefore, shares anything with the stars, it is that they both
give us the suspicion that meaning is in there somewhere; they inspire
us to search for it, tempt us to impose patterns and structures on
them, and yet never confirm whether those patterns have any intrinsic
value. A defining characteristic of post-crisis rhythm is, similarly, its
fundamental resistance to the decoding which it actively invites us to
attempt.

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As well as the stars, another timeless image traditionally presented as


embodying the rhythms of the natural world is the sea, with its tidal
motion, wave patterns, storms and calm passages making it a tempting
metaphor for verse. Walter Ince, for example, claims that in the
concluding lines of La Jeune Parque, the rhythms do not just suggest
the disordered power of wave and water, they are it, transposed into
a linguistic experience, while Christine Crow hears the ebb-andflow rhythm of the sea in the alexandrine.7 Yet for Valry, the sea
could represent an oscillation limited in itself , a regular phase; The
drama, strange at first, seems in its repetition like a machine (Cahiers,
1911, IV, 503). Valry rejects the idea that marine rhythms contain
any meaning beyond themselves, arguing that regular rhythms are not
necessarily inherent in the waves, but rather, are imposed on their
complex structures by a human sensibility in search of reassuring
order: It is impossible, in my opinion, to reduce rhythm to objective
observation. That is why I dislike the term Rhythm of the waves which
eliminates the senses (Cahiers, 1935, XVIII, 83). Thus, in the final
stanza of Le Cimetire marin, after twenty-three stanzas of intense
intellectual activity, scrutiny of the natural world, and contemplation
of mortality, the wind picks up, disturbing the poets book, and the
joyful waves break the calm waters, shattering the poets reverie; at this
very moment, the traditional 4/6 rhythm of the decasyllable, which
has been scrupulously respected in the previous 142 lines, is disrupted
by a csure lyrique which places an unaccentuable word-final schwa at
the accented fourth syllable. Moreover, recalling the recurrent presence
of the sea in the aforementioned metrical disturbances of the Album de
vers anciens, it is the unaccentuable e of vagues (waves) itself, after an
imperative Rompez (Break) which explicitly calls for structural
dismantling:
Lair immense ouvre / et referme mon livre,
La vague en poudre / ose jaillir des rocs!
Envolez-vous, / pages tout blouies!
Rompez, vagues! / Rompez deaux rjouies (ll.14043)
(The immense air opens and shuts my book,
The powdery wave dares to spring from the rocks!
Fly away, dazzled pages!
Break, waves! Break with joyful waters)

In striking contrast with the Romantic belief in the quasi-versificatory


rhythms of the natural world for Hugo, nature is a symphony; there

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is rhythm and measure everywhere; and you could almost believe


that God had made the world in verse8 here Valry suggests a
fundamental incompatibility between the seas unpredictable structures
and the fixed metrical forms of verse, which was already highlighted
by Rimbaud in Le Bateau ivre (The Drunken Boat), where the
unruly waters engulf and erase the poems metrical structure. When
Valrys Parque contemplates the waves, searching for the truth of her
human condition, she finds that la houle me murmure une ombre de
reproche (the swell murmurs a hint of a reproach at me);9 and in Un
feu distinct. . . , from the Album de vers anciens, instead of confirming
the meaningfulness of regular rhythm, the sound of the waves inspires
only doubt:
Comme la vide conque un murmure de mer,
Le doute (ll.1213)
(As to the empty shell a murmur of the sea
Doubt)

Thirdly, it often proves extremely tempting for poets and critics


alike to imagine a rhythmic truth in the human body, in what appear
to be the regular rhythms of our breathing, heartbeat and pulse. Yet
while Valry reflects at length on our psychological, physiological and
muscular responses to rhythms of various kinds, he offers no simplistic
model of corporeal rhythms corresponding to regular verse. On the
contrary, like the stars and the sea, the rhythms governing the human
organism are a source of unanswerable questions:
The organism has its stopwatches and its metronomes. What are they? What time
has it adopted? What pendulum beats?
These questions, if only we could answer them, would provide the thread
and the most intimate link between the body and the cosmos from which it is
separated. (Cahiers, 1916, VI, 278)

The young Parque, wrestling with the problematic experience of


recognising a rhythmic pulse in herself, finds no solace in the regular
beat of a 3/3/3/3 alexandrine:
Mon cur bat! / mon cur bat! / Mon sein brle / et mentrane! (27)
(My heart beats! my heart beats! My breast burns and carries me away)

This regular rhythm provides no answers, nor any confirmation of


the meaning of life. As the despairing Parque contemplates suicide,
it is precisely the rhythmic part of herself which she intends to

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destroy: jallai de mon cur noyer les battements (35) (I went to


drown the beating of my heart); and as she contemplates death, her
hearts faltering rhythm remains as mysterious as ever:
coute, avec espoir, frapper au mur pieux
Ce cur, qui se ruine coups mystrieux (31)
(Listen, with hope, as it knocks on the pious wall,
To this heart, which ruins itself with mysterious beats)

Neither the stars, nor the sea, nor the human body, therefore, can
provide a stable guarantee of a meaningful rhythm which pre-exists
the text, and Valry warns us to be sceptical of mimetic textual models
of external rhythm. However, the creation and appreciation of artistic,
literary or poetic structure is a profoundly human activity, and to deny
inherently meaningful forms in nature is not to call for formlessness
in art. Just as the human mind is predisposed to impose patterns, the
interpretation of artistic structures, or the search for an interpretation,
is a matter for the reader: Composition is the most human thing about
the arts. Nature only offers systems at random; and we have to search
for a link which establishes some relation between a whole and its
parts. This requires man (Cahiers, 1931, XIV: 808). Poetic rhythm,
therefore, emerges as a constant search for an answer which, we must
accept, can never be confirmed by any higher authority, and yet the
urge to uncover the truth of this rhythm, the hope of an imminent
revelation, remains.
Rhythm and composition

Given Valrys dismissal of any extra-textual force producing rhythms


for the poetic text to imitate, his insistent claims that several of
his poems find their origin in some pre-textual rhythm may seem
surprising:
It was born, like most of my poems, from the presence in my mind of a certain
rhythm. I was astonished to find, one morning, decasyllabic lines in my head.10
As for the Cimetire marin, the intention was at first just an empty rhythmic figure,
or filled with vain syllables, which came to obsess me for a while. I observed that
this figure was decasyllabic. (, I, 1503)
Another poem began in me by the simple indication of a rhythm which gave itself
a meaning little by little. (, I, 1474)

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My poem Le Cimetire marin started in me with a certain rhythm, which is that of


the French decasyllable, divided into four and six. I had no idea yet what should
fill that form. (. . . ) Another poem, La Pythie, first offered itself by a line of eight
syllables whose sonority composed itself all on its own. (, I, 1338)

As late as 1944, in the preface to his translation of Virgils Bucolics


into unrhymed alexandrines, Valry maintains that it is the rhythm
which comes first, and that a poets internal work consists less of
finding words for his ideas than of finding ideas for his words and
predominant rhythms (, I, 212); similarly, as Emma Sutton observes
in this volume, Virginia Woolf writes of putting words on the backs of
rhythm. We might be puzzled, then, by an apparent return to the idea
of a rhythmic truth preceding the text. Yet in the above quotations,
Valry carefully situates the rhythm inside his own mind, not outside;
furthermore, his is an extremely well-read mind familiar with the
history of French verse forms, having spent many years grappling with
the problems of composition. In this context, we might not be as
surprised as he himself claims to be when he writes of composing
almost unconsciously in metrical form: I was surprised to find myself
versifying (, I, 1492). As such, poetic rhythm becomes a selfreflexive activity, reflecting only other textual models rather than a
truth out there in the world.
Such is Valrys insistence on the role of a self-contained and selfperpetuating literary tradition in maintaining formal conventions, that
he wonders whether anyone would invent verse had it not been
bequeathed to them:
If literature had not existed before now nor verse would I have invented
them? Would our era have invented them? (Cahiers, 1917, VI, 566)
No-one would invent verse today, if it was not inherited. Nor religions, for
that matter. (Cahiers, 1926, XI, 410)

Perhaps not. Yet while he cuts all links between metrical verse and
external guarantees, Valry maintains there is a rhythmic instinct in
man; a source of unanswerable questions it may be, but the organism
responds to rhythms which correspond to certain vague structures
within itself: A succession of noises is often taken for a rhythm but
it is not quite a rhythm all on its own. It illuminates a rhythm in me
(Cahiers, 1914, V, 476). Explaining his return to poetry after twenty
years (18921912), Valry offers a newly heightened responsiveness to

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the sounds of language:


I found myself becoming sensitive once more to what sounds in utterances. I
lingered over perceiving the music of language. The words I heard set off in
me I know not what harmonic dependences and implicit presence of imminent
rhythms. (, I, 1492)

Valry is careful not to reduce linguistic music to the mere sounds of


words, but rather, to what sounds in utterances (ce qui sonne dans les
propos). His renewed sensitivity is not simply to the form of language,
but rather, to the question of what it is, precisely, that we hear in
language beyond the semantic content, and how that corresponds
to the harmonic and rhythmic needs of the organism. Yet what,
exactly, are these harmonic dependences and imminent rhythms? And
what, precisely, is the nature of the utterances which trigger his
response? Does he mean all examples of language, from conversation
to journalism, science, and literature, prose, and verse, or poetry read
aloud? Valry writes expansively on the differences between prose
and poetry, and yet here, with uncharacteristic vagueness, it is the
sounds of indeterminate propos which offer music to his ear. This
is a crucial question, since if language in its least literary incarnations
is already musical, rhythmic, harmonious, then there is no need for
poetry, indeed, poetry as a recognisable discourse disappears, since all
language is already poetry. There must be something, therefore, which
characterises poetic discourse as distinct from other utterances, and
while Valry omits to state with any certainty what this mysterious
poetic quality is, it clearly has something to do with rhythm.
It is this sort of rhythmic instinct, Valry suggests, that motivates
free verse poets: They deliberately break with conventions, and for
the cadences and musical substance of their verse, they rely on their
rhythmic instinct and their delicate ear alone (, I, 703). Similarly,
a poets first draft represents the immediate record of his personal
rhythms, which are the form of his living energy system.11 Yet the
experience of these rhythms is always somehow problematic, and in
La Cration artistique (Artistic Creation), Valry gives a striking
example of a rhythm:
which suddenly made itself very present in my mind, after a time during which
I was only half-aware of this lateral activity. This rhythm imposed itself upon me,
with a sort of insistence. (. . . ) It seemed to me to want to take on a body, arrive at
the perfection of being. But it could not become clearer to my consciousness
without taking on some kind of sayable elements, syllables, words, and these

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syllables and words were probably, at this point in the process, determined by
their musical value and attractions. It was a draft stage, childish, where the form
and the material can hardly be distinguished from each other, the rhythmic form
providing at that point the only condition of admission, or emission. (Vues, 300)

Rhythm here appears as pure, pre-linguistic, unsayable (indicible); it


requires formulating in words, in order to exist, in order for us to
apprehend it, and yet that expression in words also veils it sufficiently
to protect its absolute quality. The nature of poetic rhythm, therefore,
lies in a kind of oscillation between an undefinable pre-textual absolute
and textual forms which point to its existence beyond them; and since
none of those textual forms can ever be an exact representation of
the absolute literary rhythm, genuine poetic rhythm, in opposition to
the mechanical, metrical and predictable, must be complex, shifting,
elusive.
Rhythmic complexity

Valry expresses this complex rhythmical model through the rhythms


produced by footsteps, either in walking or dancing. Although the
correspondence between verse and a fundamental rhythmic regularity
in man is tempting Crow, for example, claims that the voice of
poetry, too, is made of measured treads, of heartbeats12 Valry
carefully avoids this notion of measured treads, or simple ambulatory
regularity. The only footsteps in his verse, as in these examples from
Charmes, are complex, irregular, inexpressible, or forever held back on
the cusp of a virtual movement:
Les pas sidraux (Ode secrte, l.13)
(The starry footsteps)
(. . . ) des pas ineffables
Qui marquent dans les fables (Cantique des colonnes, ll.7172)
(unsayable footsteps
Which leave their mark in fables.)
Personne pure, ombre divine,
Quils sont doux, tes pas retenus! (Les Pas, ll.56)
(Pure person, divine shadow,
How sweet are your footsteps, held back!)

In the last example, the divine shadow of pure being does not walk, the
poet preferring its footsteps when they remain pure potential, just as
the homonym pas, the negator in French, cancels the verb which

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precedes it, and just as pure rhythm, which requires the impurity
of words to embody it, can only remain pure on the brink of its
expression in language.
References to footsteps in Valrys cahiers develop this model of
rhythmic complexity, such as this description of clambering down
uneven rocks by the sea:
It is a dance, strange, because all the steps are different and none has the same
amplitude or form as another; up, down, jumps, climbs, but a sort of rhythm
remains (. . . ) a dance whose steps irregularity is the paradoxical law. (Cahiers,
1921, VIII, 224)

Eighteen years later, Valry describes in detail a strange experience


where the act of walking down a familiar street sets off a series of
uncontrollable rhythmic connections of dizzying complexity:
As I walked along the street where I live, I was suddenly seized by a rhythm which
imposed itself upon me, and which soon gave me the impression of working on
me from outside. As if someone was using my life machine. Then another rhythm
came to double the first and combine with it; and there established themselves
I dont know what kind of transversal relationships between these two laws (Im
explaining it as best I can). This combined the walking movement of my legs with
I know not what kind of song I was murmuring, or rather which murmured
through me. This composition became more and more complicated, and soon
became more complex than anything I could reasonably produce according to my
ordinary, useable rhythmic faculties. Then the feeling of strangeness (. . . ) became
almost painful, almost worrying. I am not a musician; I am completely ignorant
of musical technique; and here I was, prey to a development in several parts, more
complicated than any poet could ever dream of. (, I, 1322)

This rhythmical illumination then disappears as suddenly as it had


arrived. In contrast to previous descriptions of metrical inspiration,
which arise from the poets own mind, here the rhythms seem to
possess him from outside. What is most striking is Valrys insistence
on a complexity which surpasses his understanding, which can only be
experienced bodily rather than with the analytical mind. This, rather
than simple regular footsteps, appears to be the real human experience
of rhythms for Valry. Poetic rhythm may well respond to, or provoke,
a fundamentally human experience poetry must extend to the
whole being; it arouses our muscular organisation through its rhythms
(, I, 1394) but nowhere does Valry suggest that the experience of
rhythm should be straightforward, regular, understandable. Rather, he
tells us, there is a kind of pleasure which can be neither explained nor

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171

circumscribed (, I, 1311). It is on this undefinable, inexpressible,


multiple rhythmic experience that poetry relies: it is almost only via
rhythm and the sensory properties of language that literature can reach
the organic being of a reader with any confidence in the conformity
between the intention and the results (Vues, 291).
The implications for verse analysis of this conception of poetic
rhythm are far-reaching, especially in light of Valrys professed
aversion to formal analysis itself: I do not believe in analyses of French
poetry based on rhythmics, etc (Cahiers, 192930, XIV, 274); ten years
later, he repeats his conviction that analyses of poetry through metrics,
prosody, phonetics are quite insufficient (Cahiers, 1940, XXIII, 197).
Valry thus strongly counters the Parnassian belief that poeticity may
be quantified formally: Try as we might to count the steps of the
goddess, to note their frequency and average length, it will not teach us
the secret of her instantaneous grace (, I, 1285). Beauty may only
now be defined as this uncertainty which confounds all calculations
(, I, 1287); indeed, to say that an object is beautiful is to give it
the value of an enigma (, I, 1301). It is the role of poetic rhythm,
therefore, to preserve that mystery by simultaneously pointing towards,
and holding back from, its imminent revelation, since Legs are not
only for getting across and arriving and words are not only for
learning or teaching (Cahiers, 1916, VI, 182).
While rhythm, then, survives the crise de vers as a vehicle for both
experiencing and thinking poeticity, it acquires a new complexity
and becomes so central to poetic discourse that, even in the absence
of an external mimetic model, we are invited to imagine that it
somehow exists beyond the text. Valry argues that rhythmically and
structurally complex verse actually creates the illusion of having sprung
from real life, not unlike his strange experience of walking previously
quoted:
Verse is that language in which the sonority and the linking of words, their
signifying effect and their psychological resonances, the rhythms, the syntactic
arrangements are so tightly bound that our memory is necessarily cleansed of
them, and the words form an object which appears as if it were natural, as if it
were born out of real life. (Cahiers, 1922, VIII, 586)

The important words here are as if (comme). The complex, multiple


and artificial structures of verse may at certain privileged moments
appear to correspond to external rhythmical truths, indeed, it is the
peculiar power of poetry to provoke precisely that illusion, but it

172 Paragraph

remains an illusion nonetheless. Valry describes himself succumbing


to the same illusion in music: Beautiful music, you inspire my hatred
and my desire. I know that you lie, and yet I follow you. You pretend
to know, to hold you recreate, you form and reform and I know
that you do not know and that you move us as if you led to the
secret (Cahiers, 190708, IV, 354). In an article which asks how to put
prosody back at the centre of the way in which we think about poems
and poetry (. . . ) how to understand prosodys elusive yet undeniable
cognitive character, Simon Jarvis draws a similar conclusion: it is
hard to escape the implication that there is something constitutively
illusory about what it is that music attempts to express.13 In an early
letter to Gide, Valry observes the same process in poetry: I have read
the most marvellous Poe, Rimbaud, Mallarm, analysed, alas, their
methods, and each time I have come across the most beautiful illusions
(11891).14 It is this illusion, nurtured by poetry itself that rhythm
does exist out there that we, as readers of poetry, are conditioned
into accepting; Valry is clearer than anyone on how this rhythmic
illusion functions, and by placing a post-illusory formalism at the
heart of his poetics, provides something like the kind of idealism a
sober, non-metaphysical, indeed an anti-metaphysical, almost, it may
be thought, a materialist kind of idealism upon which Jarviss study
concludes.15

Rhythm as deferral

Thanks to its rhythmic complexity and structural multiplicity, verse,


for Valry, can never be exhausted in the reading: A beautiful line of
verse is reborn indefinitely from its ashes (, I, 1510), a 1929 formula
which he takes up ten years later: the poem does not die for having
lived: it is made expressly to be reborn from its ashes (, I, 1331).
This recalls Derridas understanding of writing, as Peter Dayan puts
it: Like music, writing cannot be said to arrive, it cannot reach us,
cannot happen (. . . ) but unlike music, as a thing, as a form, its duty
is to be consumed, to vanish, to leave behind it only ashes.16 Only
unanalysable form, the kind to which Valrys intricate verse structures
aspire, can allow the text to be reborn from the ashes of the reading,
and crucially, for Derrida, that capacity to escape fixity constantly
is expressed as rhythm: As it escapes from all forms that writing
can determine, it acquires the force of rhythm (. . . ) not analysable
rhythm, not representable form, but a kind of rhythm which always

Paul Valry and the Search for Poetic Rhythm

173

escapes, and must always be re-thought, re-invented, re-imagined.17


Unlike prose which, Valry often argues, exists to take the reader from
A to B, with B representing the final term to be understood, the
rhythmic fabric of verse enacts formally the fundamental impossibility
of concluding, since if everything were deciphered, everything would
disappear instantaneously (, II, 506). Indeed, for Valry, the essence
of poetry is a resistance to closure, a constant hesitation:
The poetic idea (. . . ) a clear ambiguity, presenting in a fragment, on
a given point, the resonance of the whole being. (Cahiers, 1915, V,
637)
The poets business is to construct a sort of verbal body which might
have the solidity, but the ambiguity, of an object. (Cahiers, 1916, VI,
118)
Ambiguity is the rightful domain of poetry. (Cahiers, 1916, VI, 343)
This state of poetry is perfectly irregular, inconstant, involuntary,
fragile. (, I, 1321)

Whoever looks for one single, fixed truth in la fort enchante


du Langage (the enchanted forest of Language), Valry explains, is
doomed to disappointment:
The huntsman who gets worked up chasing the truth, following a single,
continuous path, of which each element is the only one he must take, for fear
of losing the path or the gains of the road hitherto travelled, risks capturing only
his/its shadow. Gigantic, sometimes; but a shadow nonetheless. (, I, 130001)

In a typically Mallarmean piece of sleight of hand, it is unclear from


the French what the possessive in ne capturer enfin que son ombre
refers to; does the truth-seeker find a shadow of the truth he was
searching for, or a shadow of himself? Is the truth in art an internal,
human truth, or does it exist out there, in language, in the universe?
Surely, as we have seen, that ambiguity is central to poetry, and it
is rhythm which helps the poet maintain this quintessentially poetic
hesitation, fuelling but never satisfying our need to find a suitable
definition of poetry, at the very least a decisive characteristic and
this need itself is born of our inability to discover the real poetic
principle (Cahiers, 1918, VII, 71).
It is in rhythm that Valry locates the universally human response to
poetry, a rhythm which provides no answers, which resists definition,
and yet which, in its mystery and complexity, represents the truth of

174 Paragraph

both the human condition and the poetic enterprise: Why not admit
that man is the source, the origin of enigmas, since there is no object,
no being, no instant which is not impenetrable (, I, 650). Just as
Mallarms famously mysterious obscure poems work by making you
expect and desire some resolution (Cahiers, 194041, XXIV, 150) and
yet by constantly deferring it, Valrys theory of rhythm establishes
a sense of familiarity, or recognition, a desire for resolution, and yet
its complexity resists our understanding, allowing verse to be born
again with every reading. As Robert Pickering observes, rhythm, for
Valry, is a concept in a state of perpetual becoming.18 Moreover,
it is a state which both needs language in which to manifest itself,
and yet rejects it, providing its own sort of truth, a state which
approaches that imagined by Simon Jarvis: If we can imagine forms of
thinking and knowing which are not linguistic, and which do not
rest upon linguistic modes of making-explicit, then we are also in
that act imagining meanings and ways of meaning which are not like
the relation of a signifier to a signified.19 Rhythm, then, is always
in process, never fixed; always mobile, unstable; it provides no clear
answers, but rather, provokes unanswerable questions, and it is this
elusive, challenging, unsettling characteristic which ensures rhythm
remains central to twentieth-century poetry and its exploration of
what it means to be human and in the world, teasing us with the
promise of answers which it perpetually defers.
NOTES
1 Valrys italics. The italics in all quotations are Valrys own. References
to Valrys prose are from uvres, edited by Jean Hytier (Paris: Gallimard,
coll. Bibliothque de la Pliade, 1957) and Ego scriptor, edited by Judith
Robinson-Valry (Paris: Gallimard, coll. Posie, 1992), which contains
selections from his Cahiers in chronological order. French verse will be given
in the original with accompanying translation, while prose will be given in
English only, unless commented on at the level of the signifier. All translations
are my own.
2 See Benot de Cornulier, Thorie du vers (Paris: Seuil, 1982), 13344 for an
explanation of the various types of caesural infringement.
3 Letter to Jacques Doucet, 1922, quoted in Brian Stimpson, Paul Valry and
Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 175.
4 In another striking parallel with Emma Suttons opening quotation, this
echoes Woolf s suggestion that the writer has not to fix rhythm in the text,
but rather to set it working.

Paul Valry and the Search for Poetic Rhythm

175

5 One of the strengths of Henri Meschonnics Critique du Rythme (Lagrasse:


Verdier, 1982) is its similarly staunch refusal to see poetic rhythm as a mimesis
of cosmic or bodily rhythms; see the sections entitled Limitation cosmique
(61742) and Critique de lanthropologie du rythme (643702).
6 Victor Hugo, Les Contemplations (Paris: Gallimard, 1973), 376.
7 Walter Ince, Some of Valrys reflections on rhythm, in Baudelaire, Mallarm,
Valry: New Essays in Honour of Lloyd James Austin, edited by Malcolm Bowie,
Alison Fairlie and Alison Finch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1982), 38497 (395) and Christine Crow, Paul Valry and the Poetry of Voice
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 83.
8 Hugo, Ocan. Faits et croyances, in uvres compltes, 18 vols, edited by Jean
Massin (Paris: Le Club Franais du Livre, 196770), VII, 700.
9 La Jeune Parque (Paris, Gallimard, 1974), 17.
10 Frdric Lefvre, Entretiens avec Paul Valry (Paris: Le Livre, 1926), 62.
11 Comment travaillent les crivains, Vues (Paris, La Tables Ronde, 1948), 317.
12 Paul Valry and the Poetry of Voice, 149.
13 Musical Thinking: Hegel and the Phenomenology of Prosody, Paragraph
28 : 2 (July 2005), 5771 (57 and 65).
14 1891, Gide-Valry Correspondance (Paris, 1955), 126.
15 Musical Thinking, 69; Jarviss italics.
16 Derrida Writing Architectural or Musical Form, Paragraph 26:3 (November
2003), 7085 (83).
17 Derrida Writing Architectural or Musical Form, 82.
18 Tes pas. . . procdent: melos, marche, mditation dans les promenades de
Rousseau et de Valry, in Paul Valry: Musique, mystique, mathmatique, edited
by Paul Gifford and Brian Stimpson (Lille: Presses Universitaires de Lille,
1993), 95112.
19 Musical Thinking, 69.

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